chapter  21
31 Pages

Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallization of Culture

In 1983, preparing to teach an interdisciplinary course in “Gender, Culture, and Experience,” I felt the need for a topic that would enable me to bring feminist theory alive for a generation of students that seemed increasingly suspicious of feminism. My sister, Binnie Klein, who is a therapist, suggested that I have my class read Kim Chernin s The Obsession: Reflection on the Tyranny of Slenderness. I did, and I found my Reagan-era students suddenly sounding like the women in the consciousness raising sessions that had first made me aware of the fact that my problems as a woman were not mine alone. While delighted to have hap­ pened on a topic that was intensely meaningful to them, I was also disturbed by what I was reading in their journals and hearing in the privacy of my office. I had identified deeply with the general themes of Chernin s book. But my own disor­ dered relations with food had never reached the point of anorexia or bulimia, and I was not prepared for the discovery that large numbers of my students were starving, binging, purging, and filled with self-hatred and desperation. I began to read everything I could find on eating disorders. I found that while the words and diaries of patients were enormously illuminating, most of the clinical theory was not very helpful. The absence of cultural perspective-particularly relating to the situation of women-was striking.